"Mercenary Hirelings" or "A Great Blessing"?: Doctors' and Mothers' Conflicted Perceptions of Wet Nurses and the Ramifications for Infant Feeding in Chicago, 1871-1961
- Journal of Social History
- George Mason University Press
- Volume 33, Number 1, Fall 1999
- pp. 97-120
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Well into the twentieth century, physicians hired wet nurses to breastfeed babies in hospitals. Well-to-do families also employed them--almost always through the family doctor--as live-in servants. Physicians went to unusual lengths to find wet nurses because they deemed human milk vital to infants' health. Yet some of these doctors were also uneasy with wet nurses, arguing that they were low-class and unreliable and might produce milk harmful to their tiny charges. Other physicians contended their milk was invaluable but the price families paid for it "in submission to wet nurses' whims, accessions to their demands, and forbearance with their bad habits" was too high. The mothers able to afford wet nurses for their babies were even harsher, charging that the milk--necessary for their babies' health--of the vulgar and immoral wet nurse was "impure," and only rarely worth the havoc created by their presence in the household. The attitudes of these mothers and doctors--that human milk was a volatile substance easily changed by the impropriety of its producer and that the women who breastfed for a living were immoral, uncouth, and impossibly troublesome--helped orchestrate the move of middle- and upper-class mothers from breast to bottle.